For an ostensible masterpiece, Prince’s Sign o’ the Times (1987) is suspiciously lacking in overt concept. Since the Purple One’s death, tributes have been pouring out from every corner of the media, many proclaiming Sign o’ the Times his greatest album, crown jewel in an unrivaled career, but I’ve also heard complaints that it is somewhat hard to parse. Sprawling, experimental, varied to an extreme degree, Sign o’ the Times dips into all sorts of styles and doesn’t always stick to the so-called Minneapolis sound that was Prince’s hallmark. A rewarding and unique effort, sure, but no way could it occupy the center of the canon — I mean, all the hits are on 1999 (1982) and Purple Rain (1984), right? Moreover, where Prince circa Purple Rain had explicitly taken up the heroic rockstar mantle of a performer with a big message and a fondness for long guitar solos, when Sign o’ the Times came out three years and three albums later the mood had lightened considerably, the album declining anything resembling a narrative or even a deliberate sequence. Purple Rain tells a story; Sign o’ the Times merely puts forward a bunch of terrific songs. Where’s the greatness, the mystical vision? Where’s the timelessness?
Since even those who prefer Purple Rain tend to agree that Sign o’ the Times is formally imaginative, irresistibly seductive, and astonishing song per song, perhaps let’s tag the missing ingredient not as ambition per se but verbal meaning, the absence of a consistent lyrical theme. (Sex doesn’t count.) The opening title track makes implied reference to the apocalypse and frets over AIDS, crack, and hurricanes, but of the remaining fifteen songs, only “The Cross” voices anything resembling social consciousness, which given Prince’s dippier tendencies (“Ghettos to the left of us/flowers to the right”) is just as well. After “Sign o’ the Times,” one might perceive the nonstop musical dance party that follows as positing a hedonistic remedy to the societal ills previously outlined. Similar ideas do appear elsewhere in Prince’s music, but even so such an interpretation takes more imagination than simply decoding Purple Rain — an album that begins with a warning about how in this life things are much harder than in the afterworld and ends with a grand declaration of longing for sexual deliverance, also known as bathing in the purple rain, also known as finding redemption in another person and passing blissfully through heaven’s pearly gates. Maybe the many soft love ballads and twitchy fucksongs that dominate Sign o’ the Times suggest a similar deliverance and maybe they don’t, but the grandiosity is gone. Again, very impressive, a newcomer might think, very original, especially when one examines the songs individually, but when taken as a whole, Sign o’ the Times seems disinclined to indulge in the Statement Album tradition.
After all, that tradition didn’t always serve him well. Even if you love the albums Prince made in collaboration with his band the Revolution — and I do, I do! all three of them! — the romanticism of auteurship was getting out of hand. And since Prince was the first black pop star since Stevie Wonder and/or Michael Jackson to command widespread critical acclaim and the first since Jimi Hendrix to do so by virtue of rockist ideals (like expression, significance, etc), the temptation to play the auteur must have been pressing, and Prince played the auteur more cannily and creatively than your average arena-rock striver. This could be exciting in itself; you bet he knew it was a pose, a pose he struck to proclaim his own importance, situate himself in history, insist that he indeed has a place in history, and call your attention to all the other cool stuff he was doing. Crucial to Sign o’ the Times’s gestalt is Prince’s identity as what Jody Rosen once described in The Nation as, take a deep breath, “an anomaly in the history of twentieth-century pop music and that history’s logical endpoint—all of the excitement and grandeur and nonsense of rock and roll (and virtually every subgenre) embodied in one preening, doe-eyed, androgynous, biracial, sartorially resplendent, sexually and spiritually obsessed musical polymath.” (An utterly perfect summation.) But it’s clear in retrospect that the triumph of Purple Rain enabled the ghastly pretensions were almost realized on 1985’s Around the World in a Day and 1986’s Parade —the surrealist sound effects and pseudoreligious kitsch on Around the World, the mannered, fragmented Eurofunk on Parade, not to mention such romantic tropes as dying under the cherry moon and meeting your doomed lover in another world and going to that place in our hearts if we could only just believe and despairing that the end of the world is truly nigh. One can adore these albums, of which two out of three were soundtracks to films starring the auteur, and still acknowledge it was time for a change of pace.
In 1987, when Sign o’ the Times came out, Prince’s second film and directorial debut, 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon, had just flopped critically and commercially, winning multiple accolades from both the Golden Raspberry Awards and the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, altogether failing to sell the way his acting debut had in 1984’s Purple Rain. The band that had backed him for the last five years, the Revolution, had just broken up, following drama involving Prince, guitar/keyboard duo Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, and backing vocalist Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister, and Prince’s girlfriend until just before the band split). He had lost/postponed a whole album, called Dream Factory, due to the dissolution of the band, which in the case of Dream Factory had contributed more than usual to Prince’s creative process. Warner Bros., his label, had also just vetoed his idea for a triple album called Crystal Ball. While he had released one album per year for the past eight years with the exception of 1983, a standard of productivity no major label today would permit a star of Prince’s magnitude, he needed a comeback of sorts, a recovery from the movie’s failure and his band’s departure, and he also needed to try something new. So he picked the best songs from Crystal Ball and Dream Factory, added in a few from another project he was working on called Camille (named for an alter ego who sang in an artificially sped-up voice), and let loose the resulting album on the world, the final product a two-disc set released in March 1987. As the work of a craftsman with something to prove, Sign o’ the Times’s epic multistylistic sprawl was perhaps his most ambitious gesture to date, a way of insisting that he was still a visionary, an artist, someone to respect and fear and celebrate and lose our shit over. But the album was also a blatant pop move; despite “Sign o’ the Times” and “The Cross,” it signaled a marked decline in religious and apocalyptic themes, relinquishing romantic grandiosity in favor of tighter, punchier, more straightforward works of catchy songcraft.
While cooing over the album’s brash, assured aural resonance, let’s keep in mind that nearly everything was a product of the artist’s own hand. As he hadn’t since 1982’s 1999, Prince recorded the album entirely on his own in the studio, playing all the instruments himself and then mixing them together, overdubbing to the max. He’d worked as a one-man-band earlier, of course; before Purple Rain, all his albums were self-recorded studio concoctions, with only a smattering of other players, and when Warner Bros. first signed him in the late ‘70s, one of his selling points was that everything was “produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince,” as the tagline read. On his very first album, 1978’s For You, he played every single instrument (there were 27, all told). But while Sign o’ the Times includes more musicians than that, most are one-time guests: Sheena Easton dueting with Prince on “U Got the Look,” Bobby Leeds igniting “Hot Thing” with a flurry of saxophone, Leeds and Atlanta Bliss adding horn spice to “Slow Love” and “Adore,” and every now and then a backup singer. Nine out of sixteen songs feature no other musician than the star himself, not that you’d notice from how flawlessly he layers his drum machines and low basslines and guitar riffs and sparkly synthesizer. This was Prince’s first solo album in five years, and part of what inspired its daunting range was his craving for recognition as a master of the studio. He wanted not just to prove that such a hugely audacious and universal album could be made, but that he could make it, all alone, without a band, playing all the parts himself.
Described thus, maybe he does sound like a self-conscious auteur. After all, studio technology and its consequent artifice have been favorite tools of rock artistes since before the Beatles stopped touring, and in fact Prince’s determination to go it alone has traditionally been interpreted as yet another token of singular visionary genius. One needn’t buy into the rock artiste worldview, ahem, to acknowledge Prince’s genius. Since his musical substance during the time he fronted the Revolution tended to be much grander, showier, vaguely more mystical, and more deeply ingrained in received rockist-expressionistic codes, it’s more likely that for Prince, at least in 1987, the studio was a way to escape the stuffy expressive responsibilities he perceived as linked to his role as bandleader and instead just immerse himself in music, in endless creative possibility. Maybe he explicitly viewed the studio as an environment where craft per se was everything, maybe he was just such a control freak that he felt more comfortable on his own; either way, the musical results less closely resembled self-conscious auteurship than self-conscious pop professionalism, the work of an artist ready and indeed eager to reclaim a penchant for the hooky jingle and the exhilarating rhythm, an artist returning to, heightening, tweaking, and transforming entirely his established commercial sound all at once. That the studio context still implied a solitary genius working out of his own head just meant it was a Prince record, consistent with his loverboy/visionary/archangel/sweetiepie persona and the fundamentally romantic worldview that enabled it. Sign o’ the Times presented the same romantic hero backed by his trusty purple funk-rock style performing what initially appear to be honorably straightforward, unpretentious pop tunes.
Having moved past the disco pastiche that initially made him famous, the album nonetheless hits the dancefloor harder than before his stint with the Revolution, shot through with rhythmic punch. Bold electric basslines pop up again and again — the dispassionate bass figure circling through “Sign o’ the Times,” the recurring one-note pulse on “Forever in My Life,”the low, murky slapped bounce that drives “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” the artificially high, pitch-altered slapped bounce that drives “If I Was Your Girlfriend” — as do songs that turn potential basslines into full-fledged hooks, like “It” circling around the same glittering keyboard riff for so long you can’t help but consider the very beat an erotic metaphor. Packed with different styles of electronic percussion, the album is keyed to the sound of the LinnDrum, Prince’s favorite drum machine, the one that dominated most of his ‘80s output and Sign o’ the Times in particular, the one whose harsh thwack with boosted treble appeared in so much music of the period yet always sounds just like Prince, flattening the polyrhythms of funk into a straightahead, heavy-on-the-third rockbeat. Frequently the other instruments drop out, leaving just drum, bass, and subtle keyboard coloring, fashioning from unadorned rhythm tracks a strikingly blunt starkness epitomized by “Sign o’ the Times” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” This is funk minus funk’s organic instrumental interplay, opting instead for a spare electronic minimalism that pertains even when Prince lays on the horns or the organ or the sitar or whatever, always polished and controlled, yet warm and not above a certain hardness. One cliché about Prince calls him the first musician to give drum machines soul, whatever soul is. When the beat breaks into double-time at the end of “Sign o’ the Times,” one wonders if he could have done the same with machine-gun fire.
Thematically, if there is indeed a theme, Sign o’ the Times signifies primarily as a return to sex mode — the title track, with its list of global tragedies and armchair philosophy (“It’s silly, no? when a rocket blows and everybody still wants to fly/some say a man ain’t happy truly until a man truly dies” — don’t laugh, now), is an anomaly. Although the hedonism tends more generalized on “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and “Play in the Sunshine” (“Before my life is done someway somehow I’m gonna have fun” could be Prince’s manifesto), elsewhere he either has sex in some form or another or broods about it, which goes along with the dance music and lends his spiritual yearnings a concrete outlet. Prince had written some pretty naughty songs before, most infamously “Darling Nikki,” the very song that inspired Tipper Gore to found the PMRC, but this is the album that combines the obscenity of 1980’s Dirty Mind with the metaphysical perspective he’d learned in the meantime: “Strange Relationship,” “Forever in My Life,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” among others, all examine erotic relationships and attitudes previously unknown to pop music. The album’s composed electrofunk fits the sex theme like a glove, pardon the pun, but with Prince it’s never just about sex — it’s about people, emotions, love, the universe, existential longing, that black hole in your life you’re always trying to fill, suicide, rebirth, and physical pleasure, too, I suppose — and that’s precisely why he’s the recognized master of pop erotica. These songs are sexier for not being just about sex; when, on “It,” he screams “I wanna do it baby all the time cause when we do it girl it’s so divine,” what gets him hot and bothered is the way the song channels the divine.
Hence, an album whose coherence-conscious detractors are half-right: within the unified constraints of Prince’s signature style, a stylized funk-rock amalgam many hear as giving sonic shape to the color purple, the album does hop from genre to genre. In lieu of an explicit verbal message, behold a sense of whomping formal mastery that was itself the message. Played today the album still sounds like a knockout; imagine how shockingly excellent it must have sounded in 1987, when you first heard Prince rampage across a billion genre lines, nail every one, and rub it all in your face so sweetly and fetchingly you keep coming back for more. After the perceived withdrawal of his last two albums and the real failure of his movie, Sign o’ the Times comes across as a big slab of creative muscle-flexing. Oh, and did I mention that this is the strongest, most direct album in the catalog, the prettiest, sexiest pop kiss, the biggest, baddest slice of rock & roll? Did I mention it sounds killer as it frisks and frolics and zooms from the speakers? Now shut up already and jam.
Thus does Sign o’ the Times create an illusion of functional product where Purple Rain creates an illusion of the Artist atop a mountain peak, baring his soul, talking to God. It incorporates several aesthetic choices that code commercial, like hard beats and dance hooks and the fucksong as methodological mode, without sacrificing Prince’s creative/musical/conceptual vision, and does so effortlessly, as if he had always specialized in edgy, dancefloor-friendly electrofucksongs, which in fact he had. “Sign o’ the Times,” “U Got the Look”, and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” were all Top 10 hits, and while his previous albums had also produced hits, they were exceptions on largely experimental projects that weren’t shy about trying things the radio audience might find unpleasant. On Sign o’ the Times, by contrast, even the nine-minute live jam “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” (the one song played by a real band and not Prince the one-man-ensemble) feels mechanical, and had “Hot Thing” or “It” or “Strange Relationship” or “Play in the Sunshine” been released as singles, they would likely have topped the charts, too. There’s a sense of professional formalist craft all over the album enabled by Prince’s reclusive studio habits and his increased willingness to dance. Put me in a recording booth, he seems to say, and I’ll give you a perfect, market-ready pop album that’ll sell a million copies, sound great on the radio, push people’s automatic pleasure buttons, and jack u off.